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Curious Creatures: a living virtual research-creation lab


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The "Curious Creatures" project is an exploratory Research-Creation journey. Here, digital media practices in virtual reality (VR) are developed through an ongoing and evolving methodology. Sensorial engagement and embodiment practices are explored through practical exposure and theoretical study. Interactions between a user and their (VR) environment (as both agents of design and agents of use during the creation process) mirror intellectual and emotional decisions faced throughout the ongoing construction process. Through the study of and participation in the creative process, human agency is tested through these human-computer interactions where virtual environments are constructed with the anticipation of controlling the user's actions. Parallels are drawn to existing art, conceptual frameworks, engineering practices, and technology that inspire this curiosity driven exploration.
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Curious Creatures: a living virtual research-creation lab
Sarah Vollmer
York University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The “Curious Creatures” project is an exploratory Research-Creation
journey. Here, digital media practices in virtual reality (VR) are de-
veloped through an ongoing and evolving methodology. Sensorial
engagement and embodiment practices are explored through prac-
tical exposure and theoretical study. Interactions between a user
and their (VR) environment (as both agents of design and agents
of use during the creation process) mirror intellectual and emo-
tional decisions faced throughout the ongoing construction process.
Through the study of and participation in the creative process, hu-
man agency is tested through these human-computer interactions
where virtual environments are constructed with the anticipation
of controlling the user’s actions. Parallels are drawn to existing art,
conceptual frameworks, engineering practices, and technology that
inspire this curiosity driven exploration.
Human-centered computing Virtual reality
tive interaction;Open source software;Information systems
virtual reality, research-creation, gesture tracking
ACM Reference Format:
Sarah Vollmer. 2019. Curious Creatures: a living virtual research-creation
lab. In 6th International Conference on Movement and Computing (MOCO ’19),
October 10–12, 2019, Tempe, AZ, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 4 pages.
Curious Creatures began as means to an end: As a way to both
approach development through immersive virtual technologies and
as a means to synthesize computational art techniques and concepts
into tangible sensorial experiences. It has since grown into a living
space of countless forked paths of questions and attempted answers
induced by the exploration of the technical infrastructure available
for VR creation. It is important to identify both the immersive
expectations, and likewise challenges, of producing an experience
that invokes a sense of presence. These two concepts I nd quite
PhD candidate. Supervisor: Dr. Graham Wakeeld
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©2019 Copyright held by the owner/author(s).
ACM ISBN 978-1-4503-7654-9/19/10.
vital to an engaged virtual experience; an experience that seamlessly
fuses the visceral to the suspended.
The introduction of the element of surprise is a fairly simple
way to achieve a moment of directed association within the virtual
environment and this feature is honoured throughout the design
and construction process. Whether the experiential moment is
augmented, controlled, or induced by techniques such as visual
cues, haptic responses, user-initiated environment transitions or,
as this is an ongoing exploratory project, whatever else becomes
desirable and useful to include- the core motivation is a curiosity
driven symbiotic fusion of art, science and the technology that binds
these together. Identifying moments that we share and experience
daily through collective agency- but tie us so uniquely to a concept
of existence, are those that I am seeking to imitate, create and
re[search]-create. Particularly if they can be translated quite readily
through the virtual medium. Users who engage with this living
virtual experience will be immersed in a variety of embodiment
opportunities- depending on the “Curious Creature” of focus at the
1.0.1 Outline. First, an introduction to the project and the inspira-
tion for its existence is given to provide context and motivation. For
the unacquainted reader a short primary on ‘Research-Creation’
as an academic process is outlined followed by a brief survey of
interactive art framing participatory conditions. Last, a personal
reection on the current state of the project’s design process and
present features is concluded framing the research-creation process
in an autoethnographic style.
1.1 Inspiration
Initial motivation for this work came from a number of discussions
with Visual Arts Professor Emerita and New Media artist, Nell
Tenhaaf [2, 3, 10]. A consistent thematic presence of opposition is
developed throughout her art and one can look to exhibitions of
hers where pieces such as Push/Pull are considered “a shaper of be-
haviours” as it attempts to entice an interactant’s movements, and
WinWin where she describes a “controller-controlled” behaviour
scheme through human to non-human interactions that are trans-
mitted back and forth via sound and light through a handheld
controller and the structure known as WinWin. In particular, I
was interested in Tenhaaf’s multi-layered conceptual framework
of control. In order for an interactant to control the pixelated-like
imagery that appeared through the set of LEDs covering the surface
of the WinWin structure, the user must be ‘controlled’ (i.e., in a
zen-like control of themselves towards ‘stillness’). The more an
interactant shook or manipulated the controller itself - the less
likely the desired state in the imagery could take hold. The imagery
was encoded into a kinetic light display inspired from a naturally
MOCO ’19, October 10–12, 2019, Tempe, AZ, USA Vollmer, S.C.
occurring phenomenon- the assemblage of crystalline nanostruc-
tures within a colloidal suspension. This is only achieved under
certain environmental conditions (the aggregation is sensitive to
turbulence) which Tenhaaf played into through the implementation
of a conceptual framework idealized through the back-and-forth,
give-and-take nature of controlling oneself to control alien others.
Thus it is not always clear who or what is being controlled and
what has initiated the controller, but it is often not nearly as literal
as physically controlling the hand-held controller. Drawing from
the Husserlian distinction [
] between spatial things that can be
interacted with and temporal experiences that can be lived, I am
curious to explore the blurring of lines in an aesthetic experience
where the spatial things that are accessible for interaction generate
temporal moments that, through their lived experience, simultane-
ously prevent, or alter, that which had just been possible to interact
2.1 Research-Creation
Chapman and Sawchuk[
] provide context of the importance of
research-creation as academically valid pursuits that speak to ‘con-
temporary media experiences and modes of knowing’. Research-
creation is considered an emergent category in Canada and Chap-
man and Sawchuk see it as the ‘methodological and epistemological
challenge’ to current academic frameworks in that the often tandem
pursuits of technical, theoretical, and creative aspects quite readily
forgo decorum and scholarly form in favour of experimentation.
By identifying and discussing four sub-sets of research creation,
they hope to open a discussion on its validity as process and not
simply a result.
2.1.1 Research-for-Creation. Concerned with the need to initiate
a search for quality and specic content in order to inform later
creative pursuits. The result may be cyclically reviewed with further
research and so on.
2.1.2 Research-from-Creation. Concerned with an initial artistic
or creative body of work or project that can also be capable of
generating research data for additional or secondary purposes and
is often used to inform the creation as it happens. Additionally,
generative data from a creative project may provide secondary
research projects that may or may not be directly related to the
initial creative concept.
2.1.3 Creative Presentations of Research. When traditional aca-
demic research is presented creatively- in any eld of study. It may
be that the creative process gives access to a specic body of knowl-
edge or that a specic group is looking for creative interpretations
and means of disseminating content and results to break down
barriers found across broad interdisciplinary research.
2.1.4 Creation-as-Research. Inherently requires an act of creation
or creative pursuit in order to obtain the desired knowledge. The
resulting goal, the research itself, is achieved as a creation. Often
the interest is in understanding the media in question by physically
using it- the creative deployment may be the only valid methodol-
ogy by which to achieve the theoretical analysis. It is likely more
a questioning and redening of the concepts of theory, creativity,
and knowledge, than it is an iterative process between creation and
reection and knowledge and development.
2.2 Interactive Art
Huhtamo [
] provides a succinct, albeit ‘tongue-in-cheek’, break-
down of how to misunderstand interactive art. Common themes
he addresses are how interactivity is not a new art form, but rather
its inclusion with technology has made it more visible. Often there
are negative associations with it as solely belonging to science and
tech and not as accessible to art and culture due in part to mass
media associations and the l-e-t-h-a-r-g-i-c process of legitimizing
new mediums. Huhtamo laments on how video art only took 25
years and it’s still barely tolerated. The misconception that often
arises between doing ’artsy’ things and academically or concep-
tually being an artist parallels the assumption that just because
something is interactive doesn’t mean there wasn’t a creation pro-
cess, purpose, or that the artist has not left themselves within the
piece. Plausibly, most related to the ’Curious Creatures’ concept
of a virtual Research-Creation lab is the idea that the amount of
interactivity is not necessarily the focus nor is it expected in, for
example, art reecting on historical preforms (I will leave it to the
reader to curiously consider whether or not reading a satirical piece
of writing as literal constitutes misunderstanding the interactive
art on the misunderstandings of interactive art)...
A collection of essays and critical analyses on participatory con-
ditions [
] provide a multi-faceted approach in framing participa-
tion and interaction. Particularly drawing from contributions on
co-construction and the pacication and paradoxes of interactiv-
ity, a contextual road-map for stimulating production over con-
sumption through internet mediated mutual cooperative practice
is constructed. Here, participation under the ideology of collabora-
tive creativity and worldmaking is a joint awareness that indulges
one to combine the practice of manifestation with another- each
equally responsible for the environment in which they are creat-
ing yet simultaneously building o one another’s unique decisions
in real time. The multi-user approach seeks to foster a symbiotic
co-existence policy that parallels the participatory nature of our
shared humane existence. Where there is ‘success’, there is ‘failure’-
neither is omitted from this morphing intersubjective experience
pushing towards a collective emergence of distributed creativity.
Sha called for an approach to materiality in interactive and event-
based art installations eschewing the discretization inherent in spec-
ifying a priori objects and subjects, oering instead an alternative
framework that is inspired by continuous mathematics and process
philosophy: "Let us use continuity and continua in their intuitive
senses, seeing how we might make sense of matter as living con-
tinua versus matter chunked as living and inert objects"[
]. Curious
Creatures has a foundational link to Sha’s conceptual entanglement
of media and materiality, with its focus on the ways in which me-
dia acts materially. Moreover, through the construction of a living
virtual laboratory to play and construct computationally and cu-
riously from within, it resonates deeply with Sha’s computational
motivation, in that "the computational aords boundless and intri-
cate ways to construct media with experimentally dierent sorts
of behavior than what one expects from non-computational media
like water, wood, tissue, and sinew". Arguably the construction of
Curious Creatures: a living virtual research-creation lab MOCO ’19, October 10–12, 2019, Tempe, AZ, USA
a living virtual laboratory to play and construct computationally
within echoes this sentiment rather favourably.
3.1 Technological Design Choices
The entire VR experience is built both conceptually and physi-
cally through bouts of live coding augmenting a stable structural
base. During live coding experimentation I chose to work through
CodePen- an interactive online hub of enthusiastic coders from all
walks of life who upload, fork, share and express their code snip-
pets, curious explorations and troublesome bugs- all to a public
audience. Working in a environment such as this is an interesting
experience, not unlike live updating a website, and often invited
a state of ow- pulling one deeper into an expressive, artistic ex-
perience. You can erase, rebuild, pick and choose, rearranging the
contextual emotions made tangible as you watch it built (rendered)
right in front of you. It can become quite hypnotic- I found it to be
both fascinating and at times frustrating, like a physically iterative
design process that may or may not be inherent to building in VR.
Often, to evaluate the creation process, one must physically enter
the world they are creating, only to leave it shortly thereafter to
‘adjust the code’. In this medium it is dicult not to be a literal part
of the creation itself, fully immersed, and not just executing the
process. To experience the building and creation process a room-
scale HTC Vive VR system was used and connected to a WebVR
enabled browser, such as FireFox Nightly (a development build), or
Google Chrome.
Figure 1: A sample structure used for testing control mecha-
nisms in the VR environment.
3.2 Symbolic Features
Curious Creatures was initially run as a semi-logical state system
such that dierent types and levels of interaction by an interactant
in VR would trigger dierent and varying responses from the non-
human agent(s). Often the interactions that facilitated the transition
to a new state were not always obvious, but simple aesthetic clues
could be observed, such as presenting the interactant with a large,
eye-level, multi-layered, brightly lit, rotating sphere. This cue was
reasonably expected to entice the interactant towards the sphere-
possibly becoming curious enough to ‘touch’ it? Other examples
include the ‘mysterious’ shadows that appear projected onto the
spatially local surfaces directly surrounding, and beneath the inter-
actant’s position in Curious Creature- what might one do, or more
aptly, where might one look when noticing shadows? Is the inter-
actant drawn to curiously explore if there is a tangible or visible
source to these shadows? Figure 1 illustrates an initial design used
for testing the construction of this scenario.
This provides a similar dual level of abstraction as found in in-
stallations such as Tenhaaf’s Push/Pull and WinWin [
] , where
abstraction in software is considered from the perspective of be-
ing one of two types: “as endogenous (...behaviours are triggered
autonomously within the agent itself...) or exogenous (behaviours
run by an interactant)”. Of interest here is the contextual frame-
work emphasized by Naccarato and MacCallum [
] where, “[i]n
the context of interaction design, ‘taking the relation between sub-
ject and object by the middle’ requires letting go of interpretations
of mimicry and causality between pre-constituted ‘things.’ Only
through their dierentiation within processes of subjectication
and intra-action do discrete ‘things’ become, and therefore become
available as objects that can be made to interact.
Following work in Jang et al. [
], I also felt compelled to cre-
ate using the perceivable limitless ‘space’ aorded by a virtual
environment-in particular, choices in vertical alignment and spa-
tial extension in the vertical axis were driven by their eective
aect induced in an interactant’s perceived immersive embodi-
ment and sensitivity to change along this axis. Triggering events
in the full 360 degrees available in a physically immersive virtual
reality environment sought to encourage a more kinesthetic expe-
rience. Similarly, seeing the opportunity for exploring options of
integrating a tactile experience I looked to a controller-controlled
type scenario. Here I considered both VR controllers and later, the
VR gloves, and what could be done. Could a haptic response be
triggered? Could generative skins or objects be morphed visually
onto the virtual hands? Might this encourage greater immersion or
would this be the ‘wrong’ interaction design choice? Is too little or
too much interaction more useful to an interactant when triggering
unexpected state changes in spatial and temporal experiences?
At this point in my creative construction experience the con-
sideration of a more complex personality-matrix and possibly the
inclusion of a type of articial-life are beginning to drive my curios-
ity. However, the value of implementing a conceptually simple, but
artistically rich visual presentation is perhaps the best way forward
from here at present.
3.3 Reections on Development
The idealization of a completed ‘work of art’ that initially took
hold, strongly, as the only benchmark for success soon became
the barrier to that conceptual framework. Often I would realize
much too late, that signicant time was ‘discovered’ to have been
spent ‘adjusting a height’, or ‘tweaking a colour’, or any number of
carefully crafted execution possibilities. And although important,
and certainly a direction I want to bring this piece towards as it
evolves, there were many moments where what I wanted to create
in any given moment was either not as clearly dened (as I have
MOCO ’19, October 10–12, 2019, Tempe, AZ, USA Vollmer, S.C.
now come to appreciate the value of doing), or if there was clarity
of a specic implementation direction- the tools often did not exist.
There was a constant battle between a desire to implement some
specic concept/task, with no consideration of the complexity of
execution, and the desire to simply let go, breath, and shift perspec-
tives to achieve a more engaging experience of enjoyment.
Curiously, as this project progressed, an alternative awareness
of the depth and conceptual nature of art and a purposeful practice
of creating for the sake of creating, began to emerge. I am fasci-
nated to nd out what this new motivational force could show me,
particularly as it speaks to merging structure and integrity into a
consistent framework; perhaps opening a pathway for clarity of
concept to emerge via process and creative execution.
There is something oddly satisfying with naming a project after
it’s intended output and then being confronted with the notion
that you were in fact, revealing yourself- to yourself. Curious Crea-
tures was supposed to be the curious one; its articial behaviour
tweaked into an entity from which anthropomorphism would seep.
Instead, for the time being, this rst creation step of the entity now
known as ‘Curious Creatures’ taunted me at every turn to explore
deeper, to question wiser. The challenge is not to be stuck within
the software but rather to ask a more clarifying question. To move
beyond the methodologies of implementation and to move inward-
to nd a place from which I could draw creative reserves. I am
sure some would nd it amusing that the behaviour of this devel-
oper/interactant was so deeply shaped by an obscure fall down the
proverbial rabbit hole during the creation of the virtual agent, and
not during the actual interaction with the agent itself. According
to Chapman and Sawchuk, “the point is to understand Research-
Creation as a form of critical intervention that speaks to the media
experiences and modes of knowing”. Perhaps this experience was
precisely that.
4.1 Future Work
Ultimately Curious Creatures will develop and grow as it morphs
from its infancy as a virtual playground and into a conceptually
driven manifestation of playing virtually. Through play and cre-
ation this evolving space will draw inspiration from mentors, artists,
artistic expression and techniques, friends and scientic inquiries.
Ideas will be implemented, techniques will be discarded, and hope-
fully much discourse and creative play will be induced through
public exhibits.
Through the act of creating, each process will inform the research
and direction of the next. Specic future adaptations will look at
critiquing and evaluating artistic techniques and concepts both as
a physical means in and of themselves ’to create for the sake of
creating’, and also as an eective method to gather exposure to both
traditional art practices and new media collaborations, as well as
active research into the practice of long time virtual and interactive
artists such as Char Davies and Laurie Anderson. Certainly the
inclusion of generative behaviour (articial intelligence/life) would
be a fascinating challenge as would the adaptation and inclusion
of substantial anthropomorphic emotional scales. Integration and
study of the perspective of poiesis as described by Sha’s approach
to materiality inspired by continuous mathematics and process
philosophy is of particular interest as it encourages me to integrate
aspects of my ’past-life’ (a more formal technical and scientic
designation) into digital and artistic endeavours.
I am particularly grateful to Dr. Nell Tenhaaf for her willingness and
delight to share during our discussions- in-person, on the phone and
through quite a few emails. Also of note are the MOCO reviewers-
the comments and suggestions were greatly appreciated and helpful
both in framing a contextual map for the project as a whole and for
providing resources to consult now and for future reference and
inspiration. I would also like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Graham
Wakeeld, for all the VR equipment, time and space that made it
possible for me to be my own... Curious Creature... and for consis-
tently maintaining an inspirational and supportive environment
in the Alice Lab for computational worldmaking. Funding support
provided through a VISTA (Vision: Science to Application) scholar-
ship and the Susan Crocker and John Hunkin Scholarship in the
Fine Arts.
2016. In The Participatory Condition in the Digital Age, Coleman G. Ross C. Sterne
J. Tembeck T. Barney, D. (Ed.). University of Minnesota Press.
Melanie Baljko and Nell Tenhaaf. 2008. The aesthetics of emergence: co-
constructed interactions. ACM Transactions of Computer-Human Interactions 15,
3, Article 11 (November 2008), 27 pages.
Melanie Baljko and Nell Tenhaaf. 2012. Sensory, Sonic, and Symbolic Features
of a Collaborative Media Art Practices. Canadian Journal of Communication 37
(2012), 10 pages.
Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuck. 2012. Research-Creation: Intervention,
Analysis and “Family Resemblances”. Canadian Journal of Communication 37
(2012), 22 pages.
P. Costello. 2000. Intersubjectivity - syntheses and product of encounters with alien
others. In Layers in Husserl’s Phenomenology: On Meaning and Intersubjectivity.
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.
Erkki Huhtamo. 1995. Seven Ways of Misunderstanding Interactive Art: An
Imaginary Dialogue. Digital Mediations, Exhibition Catalogue (Pasadena: Art
Center College of Design, Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery) (1995).
Sung-A Jang, Graham Wakeeld, and Sung-Hee Lee. 2017. Incorporating Kines-
thetic Creativity and Gestural Play into Immersive Modeling. In Proceedings of
the 4th International Conference on Movement Computing (MOCO ’17). ACM, New
York, NY, USA, Article 17, 8 pages.
T. Naccarato and J. MacCallum. 2019. Collaboration as Dierentiation: Rethinking
interaction intra-actively. Performance Philosophy 4, 2 (2019), 23.
X.W. Sha and A. Plotnitsky. 2013. Poiesis and Enchant- ment in Topological Matter.
The MIT Press, New York.
Nell Tenhaaf, Melanie Baljko, John Kamevaar, and Nick Stedman. 2012. WinWin
- Detailed project description. Personal copy through correspondence (2012). http:
... I propose that through the inclusion of motion tracking for gesture-based content creation, and by augmenting such gestures through dynamics-driven simulations (Jang 2017; Vollmer 2016), unique artistic integration is possible-for example, fluidic paint-like trails can leave the user's hands with a life of their own; twisting, floating, diffusing and combining into new forms of artificial, yet curious, life (Vollmer 2019b). The implication here is to understand how 'virtual' tactile responses are taken up by users and thus teach us what works better for visuo-tactile XR creative spaces (Vollmer 2018;2019a). ...
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1. Interactive art is a very recent phenomenon. It is still in its infancy. It will take a long time for it to mature as an Artform. In terms of its visibility in the mass media or in the art world, it may, indeed, seem to be a newcomer. Its "coming out" has coincided with the vogue for concepts such as "interactive media" and "interactive games", which have become (already inflated) buzz-words since the turn of the decade. However, interactive technology was discussed and developed much earlier in the research and development community. In fact, many of the early artistic experiments with interactivity emerged either from within or from the fringes of the R&D world (e.g. Myron Krueger). The access to personal computers, more intuitive interfaces and user-friendly programming tools inspired independent artists (e.g. Jeffrey Shaw and Lynn Hershman) to explore this area in the early 1980's. Such a "history", however, overlooks the fact that interactive art is firmly rooted in the aesthetic upheavals of the 20th century. The questioning of the role of the artist, the work, the audience, the market and the relationship between art and society by the dadaists, the constructivists, the surrealists and others prepared the ground. In the 1960's Fluxus, happenings and "participation art" (Frank Popper), cybernetic art, the art & technology movement, environmental art and video art already provided many of the incredients of interactive art. The pre-digital work of pioneers like Shaw and Hershman bears evidence of this. Present day artists by no means ignore their parentage. 2. Interactive artworks celebrate high tech. They belong to the computer fair, the science center and the corporate headquarters, but not to the art museum. There isn't any serious role for interactive artworks in the art world.
Intersubjectivity -syntheses and product of encounters with alien others
  • P Costello
P. Costello. 2000. Intersubjectivity -syntheses and product of encounters with alien others. In Layers in Husserl's Phenomenology: On Meaning and Intersubjectivity. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.
WinWin - Detailed project description
  • Nell Tenhaaf Melanie Baljko John Kamevaar
  • Nick Stedman
Nell Tenhaaf, Melanie Baljko, John Kamevaar, and Nick Stedman. 2012. WinWin -Detailed project description. Personal copy through correspondence (2012). http: //
Erkki Huhtamo. 1995. Seven Ways of Misunderstanding Interactive Art: An Imaginary Dialogue
  • Erkki Huhtamo